An Irony in the Conclave

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In 2005 the media did a fabulous job of putting forward liberal candidates to replace Pope John Paul II.  In fairness, they had a mixed slate of candidates that spanned the theological and political spectrum’s.  In doing so, they gave an exaggerated picture of a mixed college of cardinals.  On the far left was a cardinal from Belgium named Cardinal Godfried Danneels.  Cardinal Danneels was appointed a cardinal in 1983 by Pope John Paul II.  In the course of his career, the cardinal has urged a decentralized church that relies more on consultation with the world’s bishops.  He has promoted a more flexible approach to pastoral and doctrinal problems, suggesting a rethinking of issues ranging from the shortage of priests to the status of divorced and remarried Catholics, as well as the Church’s way of evangelizing, ecumenism, collegiality, the possibility of ordaining married men, world peace, ecological responsibility, and the relationship between rich and poor countries.  He once said that the Church must take its proper place in society “with its witness, its message and its commitment to the poor.  Everything else is decorative.”

He did, however, have an ironic prediction which turned out to be accurate in its content though inaccurate in its subject. Cardinal Danneels was among the first to say that he believed Pope John Paul II would resign for the good of the church if he were unable to bear the burdens of the papacy.  As we know, no such resignation occurred, at least for Pope John Paul II.

Here we are in 2013, and there seems to be a shocking lack of specific liberal candidates put forth by the media.  Granted, they are still promoting a full slate of liberal solutions to various problems.  Will the next pope finally consider ordaining women to the priesthood?  Will he “get with the times” and permit Catholics to use contraception?  Will he “decentralize” the hierarchy and embrace a form of democracy in the Church that would allow the average layman to have a say in how it is governed?  Yet these rhetorical questions stand isolated from a viable candidate to support them.  True, there are some men like Cardinal Danneels who are left over from the 2005 conclave.  But they are far too old to be a realistic possibility.  Danneels himself is 79.  In fact, had the Holy Father delayed his resignation until June, Daneels would be ineligible to take part in the conclave.

Why is this?  Where have all the liberals gone?  The answer, it seems, is simple.  While the record of John Paul II and Benedict XVI is not necessarily homogeneous in terms of the liberal-conservative spectrum, its heterogeneity exists only by reason of a handful of exceptions.  Sure, John Paul II elevated Danneels, but for every Danneels, he elevated ten Ratzingers.  What’s more, it seems that John Paul II’s record got more conservative with time, and Benedict’s picked up where John Paull II’s left off.  And of course the college in now entirely made up of JPII and BXVI nominees, with Pope Benedict scoring almost 60% of the cardinal electors.  Thus, the Danneels’ of the college are either too old to be conclave-eligible or just on the cusp of that magic number of 80 so as to virtually nullify any chance of election and perhaps more importantly any influence they can exert on the election itself.

And yet, the upcoming conclave stands to contain a hilarious irony in its procedures.  The details of how the conclave will run are found in an Apostolic Constitution by John Paul II titles Universi Dominici Gregis.  According the the norms set forth in this constitution, if a decision is not made by the end of the third full day (which would contain as many as thirteen ballots: one on the first afternoon and four on each of the next three days), voting is to be suspended for a maximum of one day “in order to allow a pause for prayer, informal discussion among the voters, and a brief spiritual exhortation given by the senior Cardinal in the Order of Deacons.”

At this point, it is worth pointing out that the college of cardinals is divided into three “orders.”  There are Cardinal Bishops, Cardinal Priests, and Cardinal Deacons.  The first enjoys a priority of rank over the second, and the second over the third.  Within each order there is a rank based on when the individual was elevated.  The “senior Cardinal” in each order would be the one with the highest rank based on elevation date.  However, in the context of the conclave “senior” would mean senior among the electors.  In other words, in the chance that the cardinal with the highest rank is not less than eighty years of age, he would not be eligible to take part in the conclave and therefore could not give the “spiritual exhortation.”  The senior Cardinal Deacon, who is known also as the Protodeacon, is Cardinal Tauran of France.  This noteworthy, because it also falls to the Protodeacon to announce the election of the new Pope: Habemus Papam!

Voting would then resume in the usual manner.  However, “[A]fter seven ballots, if the election has not taken place, there is another pause for prayer, discussion and an exhortation given by the senior Cardinal in the Order of Priests.”  The cardinal with the highest rank in the Order of Priests is Cardinal Arns of Brazil.  However, Cardinal Arns is not eligible to take part in the conclave.  In fact, he is followed in rank by five cardinals who are also ineligible by reason of age.  We must go seven deep in the Order of Priests to find the cardinal who would deliver the second deadlock “exhortation.”  It is there that we discover none other than Cardinal Godfried Danneels.

That’s right.  In the event that the conclave goes longer than three full days and an additional seven ballots, which by my count gives a total of 20 ballots, it is Cardinal Danneels that will advise the college on how to proceed.  Does this give Danneels an influence that he will have not thus far enjoyed?  The answer is probably no if only for the reason of the changed face of the college since 2005.  I imagine there will be more eye-rolling than attentive listening, but that is surely the cynic in me talking.  On that note, knowing the possibility of being addressed by Danneels, there could be the inadvertent influence of encouraging the cardinals to consider more carefully that precious twentieth ballot.

This indeed is an irony in the conclave.


NB. In the event that the second address is delivered, voting would resume, and Universi Dominici Gregis directs, “Another series of seven ballots is then held and, if there has still been no election, this is followed by a further pause for prayer, discussion and an exhortation given by the senior Cardinal in the Order of Bishops.”  The Cardinal Bishops form a much smaller group.  The first two in rank are the Dean (Cardinal Sodano of Italy) and the Vice Dean (Cardinal Etchegaray of France).  However, both are too old to participate in the conclave (though the Dean has a substantial role to play in some of the proceedings leading up to the conclave).  The third ranking Cardinal Bishop, who would be the top ranked Cardinal Bishop elector, is Cardinal Re of Italy.  Cardinal Re was also among those talked about for the papacy during the last conclave.  After Re’s “spiritual exhortation” voting would resume for another seven ballots.  If there is still no decision, which by my count would be after 34 ballots, the constitution directs the cardinals to vote on how to proceed, allowing the possibility of a 50% vote rather than the required two-thirds.  It also allows for a run-off election between the top two candidates on the previous ballot.  The vote to proceed in either manner must be decided by 50% of the electors.  Pope Benedict XVI modified this in a 2007 Motu Propio in which he still allows for a runoff election, but maintains the requirement of a two-thirds vote.

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